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Ministry to pass minimum wage law ‘this year’

Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng speaks at a meeting on the minimum wage draft law yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng speaks at a meeting on the minimum wage draft law yesterday in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

Ministry to pass minimum wage law ‘this year’

A controversial universal minimum wage law will be passed this year in order to prevent a repeat of the mass protests over garment sector wages that rocked the country in 2013, Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng said yesterday, despite calls for revisions from independent unions and labour organisations.

The minimum wage draft law, which would set salary levels across sectors beyond the garment industry, has been criticised for limiting the use of independent research in determining minimum wages unless it is done with prior approval of the Labour Ministry, and also for imposing hefty fines for any criticism or organising of protests against the annually adjusted wage.

The current minimum wage of $153 a month only applies to the garment and footwear sector. In its current form, the new draft law would cover nearly every sector, except for informal and domestic workers.

At a consultation meeting for the law yesterday, Sam Heng said it would be passed this year, adding that doing so would mean the minimum wage could no longer be used as a political tool, as he claimed had happened following the 2013 national elections.

“We will try to push this law to be passed before 2018 … and make sure that the story of 2013 never comes back again in 2018,” he said, alluding to next year’s national election. “And if someone [tries to] make it a story again, they will face legal action.”

In 2013, independent unions went on strike demanding an increase to the minimum wage. The nationwide protests mirrored opposition demonstrations challenging the election results. Only after a violent crackdown by security personnel in January 2014, which left scores injured and at least five dead, did the demonstrations end.

Labour rights activist Moeun Tola said the current draft of the law was still riddled with issues. Nonetheless, experience with last year’s Trade Union Law – which was passed despite widespread objections – suggested there was little hope that amendments to the draft would be accepted by the Labour Ministry. Independent union heads yesterday said none of the changes suggested in December 2016 had been adopted.

“For me this law is not ready for passage. There are still articles that restrict freedom of expression and assembly of the unions,” Tola said.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, echoed these concerns, saying that there was now little opportunity left to put forward suggestions for the law.

However, Som Aun, president of the pro-government National Union Alliance Chamber of Cambodia, praised the draft law, saying it would keep unions in check who are not part of the National Minimum Wage Council, the government body to be created under the law, which would set the minimum salary.

He also supported measures to prevent groups with potentially shoddy research practices to influence wage negotiations. Yesterday’s announcement that the draft law would be expedited coincides with a campaign by Prime Minister Hun Sen to address the wants of garment workers.

Earlier this week, the premier met with factory representatives and promised workers a pension by 2019, free bus rides in Phnom Penh and asked factories to pay for the health insurance of their workers. In light of those promises, Tola said the push to pass the draft law was with an eye towards next year’s election.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), meanwhile, released a statement yesterday calling for tripartite discussions to iron out issues with the existing draft, including to address clauses that were not in compliance with the Labour Law and others that would have the “effect of restricting the freedom of expression and debate on minimum wage issues, both outside and inside the National Minimum Wage Council”.

Daniel Kostzer, regional wage specialist for the ILO, said he could not comment on what effects the passage of the current draft would have, but said that the body had voiced its concerns to the government about provisions that would affect unions.

“It would put some pressure on them. We always hope that whatever are international standards and best practices will be followed,” he said.

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